Our hope and prayer is that in the coming years we will see thousands of people coming to a living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, getting stuck in to the life of this church and other new churches that we start, and having a profound impact for God and for good throughout this nation and around the world. But how is that going to happen?
My title this evening is ‘A Call To Preach’. We’re back in the book of Acts, and we’ve got to Acts 16.6-15. I’d very much like you to have that open in front of you. You’ll find it on page 1111 in the church Bibles. And if you can set beside that passage the outline that’s on the back of the service sheet, then we’ll be ready to go.
So how does God drive forward the gospel and the spread of his Kingdom? Well what we’ve got in Acts 16.6-15 is what we might call a ‘case study’ in just that. This is a case study in guidance for gospel ministry. And in that sense it’s instructive, challenging and encouraging for us as, under God, we seek to turn our vision into reality. Don’t expect a rigid pattern that God will always adhere to. The Holy Spirit blows where he wills, and works in different ways in different situations. But there’s a number of guidance themes here which we should be looking out for and from which we can learn.
I’ve encapsulated the implications of all this for us in the three headings there on the outline: Be guided by the Spirit; Be purposeful; and Be people-centred. And then under those headings there’s a total of nine of those guidance themes which give us a good framework for our own efforts to spread the gospel as a church and as individuals. Each bullet point is one of those guidance themes. So:
First, BE GUIDED BY THE SPIRIT
You can see in verses 6-10 how God uses what I’ve called on the outline: ministry momentum and intentionality; Holy Spirit re-direction; God-given visions; and spiritual discernment. Take a look at that section. Here it is:
6Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Last Sunday evening we showed a short video about the four short-term mission teams that we’re sending out from here to Gran Canaria, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa – and we prayed for them, as we’re continuing to do. Paul’s was a long-term mission team of extraordinary power and fruitfulness, and one of the reasons God used them is there under that first bullet point: ministry momentum and intentionality. They knew what they wanted to do, they set out to do it, and they kept moving. Look at the first part of verse 6:
Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia…
And the first part of verse 7 as well:
When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia…
Paul is a great traveller, but this isn’t tourism. Paul knew the Great Commission and the Great Commandment – the foundational Scriptures of our mission statement: “love God” – that’s Godly Living; “make disciples of all nations” – that’s Church Growth; and “love your neighbour” – for us, that’s Changing Britain. Paul didn’t sit at home waiting for an official looking letter from heaven to drop through his letterbox with his commission and marching orders before he got on with ministry. He knew that the church has got its marching orders once and for all. He had all the guidance he needed to get going.
We know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, we’ve got to live the gospel wherever we go, and we’ve got to be relentless in doing that until either Christ returns or we go to be with him.
In order to get on with that we have to make our minds up about what we’re going to do, given where we find ourselves now. We’ve got to be clear and intentional. We’ve got to have a plan and get on with putting it into practice. Paul himself spells out his own over-arching plan at the end of Romans, in Romans 16.20:
It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.
But it’s clear that Paul’s particular plans by no means always worked out the way he expected. God had other ideas.
And that’s the next bullet point: Holy Spirit re-direction. You can see this happening in verse 6 and then again in verse 7. The reason that Paul and his team were going around Phrygia and Galatia was because (v 6) they had been …
… kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.
So that was one re-direction. And then (verse 7):
When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.
It’s unusual for Luke to call the Holy Spirit ‘the Spirit of Jesus’ but that gives emphasis to the fact that it’s Jesus who’s over-ruling the forward drive of the gospel from his heavenly throne and through the work of the Holy Spirit – his Spirit. We need to remember that when we’re involved in Christian ministry, Jesus is personally and directly involved as well.
How did the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, re-direct Paul and his team? We’re simply not told. That means we don’t need to know. And surely the point is this. If we’re getting on with ministry with momentum and clear intention, and we hit a brick wall in some way, or to use another image, we find a door closes in front of us and we can’t do what we planned to do, then the right response to that is to trust that God is in control (which he is), and that he knows what he’s doing (which he does), and that he has a better plan than ours (which he does if our way is blocked). So then we change direction to whatever seems the best thing to do in this new situation, and we keep going.
Don’t lose momentum. You can only steer a moving ship. If we keep ministering, we can trust that the Holy Spirit will channel us to where he wants us to be. So for instance, if you’re convinced that God wants to use you in a particular job for which you’ve applied, and someone else gets the job, then take that as Holy Spirit re-direction. It’ll still hurt. But keep going.
Or another very different example. We’ve long known that if this church is going to double in size and more in the coming years, we’re going to need to expand onto a second site somewhere in addition to this one. Some years ago we thought we’d found the ideal piece of land. Everything looked right until the door got slammed in our faces. We’ve had to trust that God’s got somewhere else, and somewhere better.
Twice Paul got blocked and re-directed. Then (verse 9):
During the night Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us”.
This is the next bullet point. How does God drive the gospel forward? He uses God-given visions. This vision gave Paul a clear picture in his mind’s eye of where he should be and what he should be doing for the next stage of his mission. He should be in Macedonia, taking the gospel to the Macedonians.
Where did that vision come from? It sounds like it was some kind of dream, but that’s not entirely clear and doesn’t really matter. God can use dreams and he can use all kinds of other means to bring us to the point where we have a clear picture of where we should be and what we should be doing at some point in the future. It’s comforting and encouraging that Paul had various false starts before he got this new vision. But get it he did.
Now it’s interesting to note that verse 9 doesn’t actually say that this vision came from God. It wasn’t immediately self-evident to Paul that it did. Hence the next bullet point. God uses spiritual discernment. Look at verse 10:
After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
They thought about it (as a team, it seems) and came to the conclusion that this vision was from God and that this was what they should be doing next. In other words, they used spiritual discernment – wisdom and insight given to them by the Holy Spirit – to think it through and decide for themselves that, as far as they could see (and no doubt subject to being re-directed yet again) this was from God.
And that’s how ministry progress happens. By one means or another we get a vision of where we should be headed to. And we need to pray for wisdom and discernment to assess whether that vision is God-given. And if we conclude it is, then we go for it, with no claim to infallibility, but with maximum momentum and intentionality.
Put those first four bullet points together then, and you get the first lesson in guidance: Be guided by the Spirit.
Secondly, BE PURPOSEFUL
Having a vision doesn’t make it happen. If a ministry vision is going to become reality, then it needs a serious application of sustained and focussed energy, and it needs lashings of sanctified common sense. A vision without down-to-earth implementation is a castle in the air and it’ll evaporate into nothing. So there are two more bullet points under this heading. God uses: committed and purposeful action; and strategic locations.
You can see how God uses that committed and purposeful action there at the start of verse 10:
After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia…
And then also in verse 11:
From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis.
In other words, as soon as they’ve settled what they should be doing, they get on with it vigorously. In their case, they set off on that long and elaborate journey to Macedonia. No Easyjet for them.
When you’ve got clear about what God wants you to do, get on with it. Do it now. That could be Jonathan Redfearn’s slogan, and a lot more of us could do with living by it. It might be some personal ministry project like inviting a friend to come to church. Once you’ve decided that’s what God wants you to do, get on and do it at the first opportunity. It might be something life-transforming, like getting a job overseas so that you can be a missionary in an otherwise closed country. Once your mind’s made up, then get on and take the next step.
And God uses strategic locations to drive the gospel forward. Look at what Paul does when he arrives in Macedonia, there in verses 12-13:
From [Neapolis] we travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer.
This is where you can see Paul using sanctified common sense planning. Cities are strategic for two reasons. They have lots of people in them. And cultural change flows outward from the city. Cities influence society. So if you want to turn the world upside down, the city is the place to go. That’s what Paul does. And once in the city, he heads for the place where he can most easily connect – where the local Jews and converts to Judaism pray.
We in this church not only have a great privilege but also a great responsibility, because God has put us in the city that’s at the heart of this region, and he’s put us at the heart of this city. We have a highly strategic location, and we need to make the most of it in the years to come. When our forebears built JPC in the open fields on the edge of Newcastle 150 years ago, they weren’t seeking a rural retreat. They could see what was coming – even if only in part. God used their strategic sense to put us in this strategic location.
So, first, be guided by the Spirit; secondly, be purposeful.
Thirdly, BE PEOPLE-CENTRED
All this talk of strategy and planning and intentionality and visions maybe makes you worry that we’re losing sight of the people. But not so. It’s all needed precisely to reach people, as many as possible, as quickly as possible, for their sake and for the sake of Jesus. It’s clear that for Paul, it’s all about people. So, three last bullet points. How does Paul set to work to spread Christ’s kingdom? How should we work?
We should work with the people God gives. That makes eminent sense, of course. But maybe we find ourselves thinking, especially when the going is hard for some reason, “If only we had some different people to work with – we could be so much more effective”. But God uses the people that he puts us with to further his Kingdom. Look at the second part of verse 13:
We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.
Who are the people amongst whom God has put you – at work or at home, at school or at university? Because they are God’s ideal mission field for you. That’s why he’s put you with them. It’s no accident. These are the people he’s going to use, along with you, to drive forward the gospel and to further his plans. Let’s be grateful for them.
Then God uses responsive people. Amongst those people God put Paul with down near the river in Philippi, there was at least one in whom the Holy Spirit went to work. Verse 14:
One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshipper of God [that is, she was a non-Jewish convert to Judaism]. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.
Why God opened her heart particularly we cannot know. But when the Holy Spirit decides that the time has come to open someone’s heart to the message of the gospel, the results are wonderful to see. Living faith in Christ flares up and a never-ending fire of love for Jesus begins to burn.
And when that happens, that’s the clearest guidance we could wish for that here is someone God wants us to work with and invest in spiritually. We mustn’t neglect the responsive in order to work with the unresponsive. That’s not to say that we give up on the unresponsive. We don’t. But we do need to make sure that we work where the Holy Spirit is working.
And we also need to walk through the doors that God opens in front of us. Opportunities that open up are used by the Holy Spirit to lead us on and expand the ministry that we’re able to do. And just such an opportunity opened up for Paul, through that responsive person he encountered. Verse 15:
When she [Lydia] and the members of her household were baptised, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
That wasn’t in Paul’s plan. But he was flexible in his response to the situation as it developed. He was alert to new opportunities. And when it seemed right to him to take one that presented itself, he took it. Paul thought it through and was persuaded that he should take the opportunity that Lydia’s hospitality gave him to establish that embryonic church.
So be alert to ministry opportunities that open up in front of you. Be discerning about them, yes. But don’t miss those God-given opportunities.
So that’s this wonderful case study in guidance. Take that outline away with you as a reminder of those three lessons and nine guidance themes. Be guided by the Spirit. Be purposeful. Be people-centred. And as we do that, God will use us to drive forward the gospel and spread his Kingdom, in ways beyond all we ask or imagine.